Louise King met Peter Collins in a Miami bar on a Monday night in 1957. Two days later, as they sunbathed by a local hotel pool, he proposed – and the following Monday they were married. She was a 24-year-old American actor on tour with the Broadway production of The Seven Year Itch, taking the Marilyn Monroe role. He was a 25-year-old racing driver from Kidderminster in Worcestershire, starting his second season as a member of the Ferrari grand prix team.
Enzo Ferrari, who believed that marriage slowed his drivers down, was the only one who did not entirely approve of the sudden arrival of King, who has died aged 88, in Collins’s life. The initial meeting had been arranged by Stirling Moss, who had encountered King during the annual Nassau Speed Week in the Bahamas in 1956. On discovering that the two would be in Miami at the same time, he told Collins to look her up. The newlyweds, well matched in cheerful temperament and golden looks, were often accompanied at the circuits by Mike Hawthorn, Collins’s British team mate, good friend and accomplice in off-track high jinks.
Despite his disapproval, Ferrari lent them a house, the Villa Rosa, on land he owned close to the team’s headquarters in Maranello in northern Italy. He was particularly fond of Collins, who had befriended Ferrari’s son, Dino, when the young man fell ill with a rare form of muscular dystrophy from which he died in 1956. He became less enthusiastic when the couple decided to live on a boat berthed in the Monaco harbour at the start of the 1958 season while planning to buy a home of their own.
Collins finished third in the Monaco Grand Prix and fifth in France before winning the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, where he outpaced Hawthorn’s Ferrari with a display that suggested he was ready to challenge for the world championship. Before he had even got out of the cockpit, he had been handed a lit cigarette and a pint of beer by Hawthorn and had received a kiss from his wife.
But at the Nürburgring in Germany two weeks later, as Louise sat on the Ferrari pit counter with a stopwatch and a lap chart, he went off the road and hit a tree, suffering injuries from which he died in hospital that night. He had been planning to retire at the end of the season, open a Ferrari dealership and start a family. “It was only a year and a half,” she said of the marriage, “but it was the most wonderful year and a half.”
She was born in Wabash, Indiana, the daughter of Dorothy (nee Butterbaugh) and Andrew Cordier, a diplomat who became a special assistant to two secretaries general of the United Nations, Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold. After spending a term studying interior design in New York, she gave it up to become a model and, eventually, an actor. At 18 she was married to John King, a fellow actor, but divorce followed after she had been on a six-month tour with a play called Mister Roberts, in a part originally written for Eva Marie Saint.
In 1955 she was given the lead role in the New York run of The Seven Year Itch. Tom Ewell, her co-star, had appeared in the hit film version with Monroe, who came to see her performance. King was with the touring production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami when she met Collins.
Quickly suspending her career, she became one of a group of glamorous young women who accompanied drivers on the racing circuit in the 1950s, to the delight of news photographers. The actors Linda Christian and Delia Scala were the consorts of two other Ferrari drivers, the Marquis Alfonso de Portago and Eugenio Castellotti, when they were killed in 1957. The English model Jean Howarth was engaged to Hawthorn when, weeks after winning the 1958 world title that might have been Collins’s, he died in a road accident. Katie Molson, a Canadian brewery heiress, left her marriage to Moss when she found herself unable to bear the constant toll of death on the track.
Collins’s widow had a different memory of the prevailing attitude: “When catastrophes happened, we would carry on and not let it get us down,” she said. A few weeks after the fatal accident in Germany, she accepted Enzo Ferrari’s invitation to attend the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, as if attempting to exorcise her grief over the loss of the man she always described as the love of her life.
She returned to the stage at the invitation of Peter Ustinov, to play Juliet in his Romanoff and Juliet. On television she hosted What’s My Line and the Today show in the US and appeared in the British series The Third Man, Danger Man and The Saint. Later she worked in real estate in Connecticut and made a third marriage to Gordon Burwash, a Canadian film producer and screenwriter with whom she lived in Sarasota, Florida. He died in 1980.
During her final years in Sarasota she was active in the Unitarian Universalist Church and volunteered at a local history museum. In 2017 she appeared in a British-made documentary film, Ferrari: the Race to Immortality, in which she spoke movingly and with fondness of her time as a grand prix driver’s wife.
• Louise Lauette King, actor, born 16 November 1932; died 18 August 2021
• This article was amended on 2 September 2021. The date of Louise King’s death was 18 rather than 19 August.